Nation's libraries get more use, less funding

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The community reaction to the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh's financial problems was one of last year's big stories around here. Drowned out by the local din, however, was the fact that the same story about libraries was repeated across the country.

Preliminary figures from a new American Library Association survey of how libraries fared in 2009 show that nearly 75 percent of them were handed significant government budget cuts, forcing libraries to reduce services. Pennsylvania registered a 27 percent reduction in state library aid.

Only three states -- New Mexico, North Dakota and Texas -- increased funding.

At the same time, demand for services was growing, fueled in part by rising unemployment. The jobless were flocking to their public libraries to use their Internet services to look for work.

The Carnegie reported a steady increase in visits and circulation between 2004 and 2008 despite Pittsburgh's ongoing drop in population.

The ALA study said that 76 percent of respondents reported increases in usage at computer work stations last year, while only 3 percent said usage was down.

The American Library Association teamed with the Center for Library and Information Innovation at the University of Maryland on the survey that collected data from 46 states in November. Four didn't respond -- Arkansas, Kansas, Nebraska and New Hampshire.

"It's our first opportunity to take a look at what's happening at libraries around the nation," said Larra Clark, the ALA's project manager on the research.

"A lot of libraries depend on local funding, so it's been hard to track the trends from state to state. Basically, what we're releasing now is a snapshot of the overall library situation."

The complete study will be available this summer, she said.

"Libraries have been first responders in this financial crisis," Ms. Clark said, "providing job hunting services including free Internet access. But 21st century libraries can't meet demands with 20th century funding," she added.

"I'm sorry to say that some people don't understand the role libraries play in advancing technology, including free classes on how to use the Internet," Ms. Clark continued. "Circulation is up, usage is up, computer use is up. If libraries were a private business, people would be investing in them."

What stirred the Pittsburgh community to act was the Carnegie Library's proposal to close four neighborhood branches and merge two others this year. It shelved the plan when Pittsburgh City Council promised a temporary increase of $600,000 in aid this year.

The library also is due an estimated $850,000 from a tax on Rivers Casino revenues once the casino is offering table games following the go-ahead from the state last month. Allegheny County's 44 municipal libraries are due about $100,000 less if revenue projections hold.

The ALA study discovered, however, that libraries were being closed across the country last year. Thirteen states, including Pennsylvania, reported shutdowns, with Indiana listing the most, more than five. (Specifics will be in the final report.)

The commonwealth budget also slashed statewide programs that allow community libraries to share information and connect their users to sources around Pennsylvania.

One service, the Electronic Library Catalog, called Ask Here PA, was eliminated. Cuts of 57 percent were made on the POWER Library (which provides access to full-text periodical articles, newspapers, major encyclopedia, photographs, charts, etc. for people of all ages), interlibrary delivery of materials and a statewide library card.

"These actions are penny wise, but pound foolish," Ms. Clark said. "By cutting off shared services, Pennsylvania has increased the gap between affluent and less affluent resources."

She pointed out that libraries in poorer communities depend on state resources while the state can provide all libraries with significant resources at less cost.

"Pennsylvania is very clear example of the ripple effect. By cutting services that link libraries and other institutions, students on all levels are hit hard, especially those doing research," Ms. Clark said

Also slashed by the new budget was the appropriation to operate the Office of Commonwealth Libraries, including the State Library operations in Harrisburg. It was cut $2.1 million, a 47.8 percent reduction from the last fiscal year.

In local library news, the New Hazlett Theater, headquartered in the former Allegheny Regional Library building on the North Side, is spearheading an effort to find new uses for the space that the Carnegie will abandon by the end of the year.

Representatives from the Warhol and the Children's museums, the city and the library are also involved. The Pittsburgh Public Theater formerly occupied the theater space, once a music hall.

The 120-year-old structure was badly damaged by lightning in 2006, forcing the shutdown of library services to the public. The building is now called the Allegheny Repository and holds the Carnegie Library's Heritage Collection of 150,000 historical artifacts, some dating to 1617. The collection will move to the East Liberty Branch when that building's renovation is completed at the end of the year.

A new Allegheny branch building, designed by Loysen and Kreuthmeier Architects, opened last year on Federal Street. Now, the group has hired that firm to review the structure and propose ways to renovate the building for new uses.

The Community Design Center and the Hazlett raised $20,000 for the study. Sara Radelet, theater executive director, said she hopes the report will be ready by March 3.

At a meeting at the theater Feb. 4, architect Karen Loysen reported that the building was in a deteriorating condition due to "significant water damage" and termed the cost of utilities "exorbitant."

Although the city owns the building and uses a basement area for a senior citizens' center, the library and the theater share the utility bills for the entire structure, with the library's share $250,000 annually.

Ms. Radelet said the study has two goals -- a "nuts-and-bolts" survey of the building and ways to best use the enormous space, more than 45,000 square feet.

"I don't think anybody wants to mothball the library space and just walk away from it," she said, "but to come up with imaginative ways to make the best use of it."

More public meetings on reusing the building are planned, she added, but are yet to be scheduled.

The original building is Andrew Carnegie's first library given to an American municipality (others were open only to workers at his factories at first) and marks its 120th birthday this month.


Bob Hoover: 412-263-1634 or bhoover@post-gazette.com .


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